Stress and burnout, Part I: Taking a beating

When I think of my student media experience, both as a student journalist and as an adviser, I think of boxing. You enter the arena in great shape, ready to take on whatever challenges are set in front of you. Each round, you experience a series of fresh successes and more than a little beating, but you keep getting up and answering the bell until either the fight is over or you can no longer stand up.

Beyond the idea of fighting the good fight and the adage that “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” however, is that certain choices have consequences and there can be some serious long-term damage that we should really examine. This came to light when I saw the following editorial from the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily, who explained why she’s taking a week off from everything:

This is not a decision I make lightly. I wouldn’t be doing this unless absolutely necessary, because since my first day here I’ve cared about The Daily more than for myself.

But after almost going to the hospital when leaving The Daily’s office alone late Monday night, I refuse to keep allowing severe panic attacks as part of my day-to-day routine. I refuse to keep losing more hair, weight and blood and as nearly as much sleep.

Yesterday, I told a friend my work at The Daily is ever-so-rapidly destroying my physical, mental and emotional health, not to mention my interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships or my dedication to my academics. He replied this destroying can lead to a “violent and deeply entrenched burnout.”

Claire Hao isn’t alone in this situation. Student newspapers operating during the pandemic often took a “time-out” or two as they dealt with all sorts of chaos surrounding their campuses, their newsrooms and their daily lives. The Daily Gamecock at the University of South Carolina was one of several student media outlets that went dark or hit the pause button due to the crushing weight of their workload:

It’s hard to ask for a break knowing that an already overworked colleague would have to pick up any of the tasks that you were unable to fulfill. So, for the most part, we’ve been pushing through. Waiting for it to get better. Failing to take care of ourselves.

We haven’t been sleeping. We’ve forgotten to eat. We’ve been staring at screens for hours on end. Our negligence of our mental health has started to impact our physical health, and it’s also affected our ability to produce the highest-quality content possible. There was a tension in the newsroom, a feeling that everyone was close to their breaking point.

It’s difficult to step away. We are all deeply invested in the work we do at this paper, but we have to allow ourselves to exist outside our identities as editors and producers. While we strongly stand by our commitment to report, fighting burnout and practicing self-care ensures that we will be able to continue to serve this community to the best of our ability.

Look, I get it. Student media is a voracious monster that can consume any one of us whole. As a student, I essentially lived in the newsroom for days or weeks or months at a time. I kept food in the fridge, a change of clothes in the office and a stick of deodorant and a toothbrush in my desk drawer. All of this was essentially a poor substitute for good meals, solid sleep and actual personal hygiene. Still, that was what was expected of you. This is what you signed up for.

What we were told at the time was that the people before us had done just as much, if not more, with much less of all of those things, so either suck it up or realize you’re just a wuss. The legends of people who did great and mighty things in our newsroom drove us past the breaking point, lest we disappoint the ghosts of journalists past against whom we would never measure up. Pick your ass up off the floor, brush yourself off and get back in there. The fight’s not over.

So, we took it. Each beating was a badge of honor. Each time we got hit, we shook it off as best we could and kept moving forward. We had a myopic approach that said, “Keep your eye on the prize. Keep fighting. You’ve got one more round in you.” We refused to give in, give up or quit. That wasn’t how we were built.

At the age of 20, 21, 22, we didn’t think about the consequences. We never really thought beyond the crisis of the moment. Like boxers, we operated one round at a time. However, in looking back at things now, we realize, like many boxers, that maybe we took a few hits too many. Years later, we see what happened to us, just like Gerald McClelland:

Over the years, I’ve given a number of presentations on burnout and student journalists as well as published research on burnout in the student newsrooms. What I have found is that a great many students who have spent a good amount of time working in these places do register clinical signs of burnout. Here’s a chunk of a presentation I did for student journalists. See if this sounds familiar:

In an effort to measure burnout, researchers Maslach and Jackson developed three aspects of the Maslach Burnout Inventory: an increased feeling of emotional exhaustion; the development of negative, cynical attitudes and feelings toward one’s clients or patients (depersonalization); and the tendency to negatively evaluate oneself through unhappy reflections on one’s self and one’s job accomplishments (personal accomplishment).

They wrote that burnout is a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind” (Maslach and Jackson, 1981, p. 99). Burnout is prevalent if workers demonstrate high emotional exhaustion and depersonalization coupled with low personal accomplishment.

The scales these folks developed help measure these three concepts and the degree to which they’re severe enough to merit serious concern. One year, as students in a session were rating themselves on these scales, I had a student ask about the “decoding” chart I had put up on the board.

“What does 11+ mean for that one scale?” one kid asked.

“When you add the scores of those questions together, if you get higher than 11, you’re at a burnout level for that scale,” I explained.

I saw him doing some quick math and then he turned pale white.

“Jesus Christ…,” he muttered. “I’m at 29.”

He wasn’t alone. Students in that room overwhelmingly reported cynical attitudes, a loss of hopefulness, emotional exhaustion and a lack of joy in any accomplishments. They were, to quote the title of one of our studies, “Editor Toast.”

Over the next couple days, I’m going to put together a series of posts based on work that I did with several good friends that analyzed stress and burnout. What I hope will happen is that people will see this as an opportunity to see that they’re not alone, analyze their own well-being and start talking about these issues in public with other folks in student journalism.

If the field itself is going to survive and thrive, the people in it need to do so first.

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